Third time’s a charm? LAFC’s MLS Cup dream meets Austin FC boogeyman

Austin LAFC

LOS ANGELES – In order to reach their first-ever MLS Cup Final, LAFC must overcome an adversary they already know is capable of giving them a run for their money.

The Black & Gold host Austin FC in the Western Conference Final at Banc of California Stadium Sunday (3 pm ET | ABC, ESPN3), pitting them against the opponent that most troubled them during an at-times-dominant Supporters’ Shield-winning 2022 campaign.

The Texan side emerged victorious from both matchups between the clubs this season: First by a 2-1 scoreline back on May 18 at the Banc, then via a 4-1 trouncing at Q2 Stadium in late August that turned heads around the league.

But now, with a domestic double within reach, LAFC defender Ryan Hollingshead doesn’t expect those results to have any bearing on the proceedings.

“I think more than what's happened in the past, where we're at now as a team and the way that we're playing right now, is probably the highest level since I've been here,” Hollingshead told on Friday. “It's the highest level that I've seen us playing at. We have really put things together in a new way, brought in some big-time pieces who are contributing for us in really big ways.

“I think when you look at that and look at where we are today, we feel so much more confident [now] than even times throughout the middle of the season.”

Settling-in period

The impetus behind that surge in form is simple, Hollingshead said: LAFC’s high-profile midseason roster additions, of which there were several, have gained an increasing comfort level with their new surroundings both on and off the field.

“I think any time you're bringing new guys into a new league, there's a learning curve, no matter how seasoned they are, how good they are, how skillful they are,” Hollingshead said. “Coming into a new league, you have to adjust. A lot of guys are moving their families across countries and oceans. So there's a lot that goes on, even behind the scenes, to moving and being a part of this club.

“I think guys come in, they take a couple of weeks, they settle down, and then once they're settled down the team really starts to be able to build off what we have and the pieces we have. And I think that's exactly what's happened here: Being able to put the right pieces together, get everybody on the same page, get everybody competing at their highest level which then, in turn, gets the team competing at its highest level.”

That was on display in last week's Conference Semifinal, a legendary 3-2 win over El Trafico rivals LA Galaxy that followed LAFC getting a Round One bye in the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs. New DP winger Dénis Bouanga scored a brace before Cristian Arango's 93rd-minute game-winner booked passage, and now they're the odds-on favorite – both in the betting market and probability models – to advance past Austin and host MLS Cup on Nov. 5.

They’ll need every bit of that and more against the West’s No. 2 seed. Austin are surely feeling confident given their regular-season success against LAFC and their own playoff victories over Real Salt Lake (Round One) and FC Dallas (Conference Semifinals).

“Austin is a good team, they're able to get results. They finished second in the West, this is not just by hazard or by luck,” LAFC goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau said. “They beat us twice in the regular season.

“I think [we are] in a good moment where we had a few games leading up to, yes, the Shield, and then last week against Galaxy was a good performance overall. We are more focused on what we have to do on and off the ball to win that game.”

The Driussi problem

It's a matchup that certainly doesn’t lack star power on both sides.

LAFC sport arguably the league’s most loaded roster, a title they could have claimed even before those aforementioned midseason additions, which included legendary Italian center back Giorgio Chiellini, former Real Madrid and Tottenham Hotspur superstar Gareth Bale, ex-FC Barcelona winger Cristian Tello, Ecuadorian international midfielder Sebastian Mendez and Bouanga.

Austin FC have been among the most dynamic attacking teams in MLS themselves, with 65 regular-season goals to their name, third-most in the league. They’re led by MVP finalist Sebastián Driussi, who tortured defenses to the tune of 22 goals and seven assists.

Limiting the influence of the dynamic Argentine is among the top priorities for LAFC on Sunday, especially since he's scored three goals in the Verde & Black's two playoff games.

“It's about knowing where [Driussi] is on the ball in certain moments,” Crépeau said. “Is he 1-v-1? Is he isolated? But he's a talented player and he can capitalize in a few ways: He's good in the air, he's a good striker that can put it away with his right or even left foot. So, that's what makes it good. This is why we're in Conference Finals, right? It's two teams going at each other.”

Added Hollingshead: “For a guy like that it's a lot about limiting his touches, limiting his chances and when he gets a chance, make it a half-chance. It's not like you're going in saying: 'Driussi's not going to get a shot on goal, he's not going to get into a dangerous attacking spot.' He's going to. Players like that, they know how to find themselves in the right spots. But it's about when he gets there, what do we do to make it a half-chance? What do we do to disrupt his angle, disrupt his flow?”

Ultimately, midfielder Ilie Sanchez said any regular-season results are irrelevant come playoff time, even if they'd gone in LAFC's favor. On Sunday, it's about securing that berth in MLS Cup, and the hosting rights that would come with it, by any means necessary.

“We know who they are, how they want to do things on the field," the Spaniard said. "So for us, it's not that having lost against them twice will help us now to win. But I think at least we know who we will have in front of us in the way that they will perform exactly how we expect them to do it. So we expect the best Austin coming into our stadium and that's how we approach them in the Conference Final.”